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The American Spirituality of Loren Eiseley

by Richard E. Wentz

Dr. Wentz is professor of religious studies at Arizona State University in Tempe, and the author of The Contemplation of Otherness: The Critical Vision of Religion, to be published soon by Mercer University Press. This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 25, 1984, p. 430. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


I am treading deeper and deeper into leaves and silence. I see more faces watching, non-human faces. Ironically, I who profess no religion find the whole of my life a religious pilgrimage.

The religious forms of the present leave me unmoved. My eye is round, open, and undomesticated as an owl’s in a primeval forest -- a world that for me has never truly departed.

I have come to believe that in the world there is nothing to explain the world.

Like the toad in my shirt we were in the hands of God, but we could not feel him; he was beyond us. totally and terribly beyond our limited- senses.

Man is not as other creatures and. . . without the sense of the holy, without compassion, his brain can become a gray stalking horror -- the deviser of Belsen [from All the Strange Hours and The Star Thrower, by Loren Eiseley].

In an announcement of recent book arrivals, The Christian Century called attention to a critical study of Loren Eiseley by saying: “The religious chord did not sound in him, but he vibrated to many of the concerns historically related to religion.” The statement is somewhat ambiguous, but is typical of the dilemma of contemporary religious scholarship. We do not really know what to do with religiousness when it expresses itself outside those enclosures which historians and social scientists have carefully labeled religions. What, after all, does it mean to say that the religious chord does not sound in someone, but that the person vibrates to the concerns historically related to religion? If the person vibrates to such concerns, the chord is religious whether or not it manages to resound in the temples and prayer houses of the devout.

It seems to me that that is precisely what Loren Eiseley had in mind when, in his autobiography, he stated: “I who profess no religion find the whole of my life a religious pilgrimage.” In fact, I find the primary thrust of Eiseley’s literary and personal essays to be religious. He was indeed a scientist -- a bone hunter, he called himself. Archaeologist, anthropologist and naturalist, he devoted a great deal of time and reflection to the detective work of scientific observation. However, if we are to take seriously his essays, we cannot ignore the evidence of his constant meditation on matters of ultimate order and meaning.

Such reflection seems to have been part of his every scientific observation, although he was careful not to permit it to ruffle the protective feathers of his fellow academics. “I have had the vague word ‘mystic’ applies to me,” he writes, “because I have not been able to shut out wonder occasionally, when I have looked at the world. I have been lectured by at least one member of my profession who advised me to explain myself -- words which sound for all the world like a humorless request for the self-accusations so popular in Communist lands” (The Night Country [Scribner’s, 1971], p. 214). His earliest thought of a career, when he was still in high school, was that he might be a nature writer. He remained prophetically loyal to that vocation. As a scientist, he was a lover of wisdom, a contemplative and a literary artist of considerable power. Elseley’s editor, Kenneth Heuer, puts it all in tender prose when he writes: “He wrote always about the nature and animals he loved. With the passing years, his poems became more personal and philosophical” (All the Night Wings [Times, 1979], p. xi). Like the poems, his essays are also personal and philosophical -- and profoundly religious.

There are several reasons why Loren Eiseley’s work has not been examined from the perspective of religious thought. First, many scholars and other intellectuals who appreciate Eiseley’s writings have little understanding of what religious thought is and prefer to treat such matters by the use of safer language. Second, there is Eiseley’s own desire to protect his scholarly credibility. He sought to avoid, and rightly so, any facile or sentimental deference to religion. He also found it difficult to identify himself with any tradition because he had learned from the great spirits of religious history and was dissatisfied with religion’s institutionalized form. Having discerned the secret, the power at the depth of the religious quest, he found the churches and their leaders wanting. Finally, Eiseley’s ideas are not the spidered webs of abstract systems. His thought takes the form of contemplative involvement in the stuff of existence; it is best understood as a type of American spirituality.

Loren Eiseley is very much in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau. He takes the circumstances of whatever “business’’ he is about as the occasion for new questioning, new searching for some sign, some glimpse into the meaning of the unknown that confronts him at every center of existence. For many scientifically oriented individuals, the unknown is a “not-yet” at the outer edge of the known. For reflective thinkers like Eiseley, who understand their science as experience, the unknown is always encountered in the midst of the known. That is to say, the more one is aware of one’s own involvement in a scientific enterprise, the more one understands it as participation in a mystery, rather than as a conquest of exterior and objective territory.

Loren Eiseley thought that much of the modern scientific enterprise had removed humanity ever farther from its sense of responsibility to the natural world it had left in order to create an artificial world to satisfy its own insatiable appetites. Appetites, our spiritual geniuses have taught us, must be disciplined if we are to understand ourselves and to be open to insight into ultimate reality. “The one great hieroglyph, nature,” wrote Eiseley, “is as unreadable as it ever was and so is her equally wild and unpredictable offspring, man. Like Thoreau, the examiner of lost and fragile surfaces of flint, we are only by indirection students of man. We are, in actuality, students of that greater order known as nature. It is into nature that man vanishes” (The Star Thrower [Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978], p. 237). Eiseley understood Thoreau as a “spiritual wanderer through the deserts of the modern world,” as one who “rejected the beginning wave of industrialism.” However, Thoreau had left the seclusion of Walden Pond in order to pace the fields of history, sorting out the artifacts that people had dropped along the way. It was those “fossil thoughts” and “mindprints” that Eiseley himself explored in his wanderings. These explorations gave depth, a tragic dimension and catharsis to what he called the “one great drama that concerns us most, the supreme mystery, man”

Just as Thoreau sought a proper way to see the world as it really is. so Eiseley learned that the only remedy for life’s displaced blundering is to be found “somewhere in the incredible dimensions of the universal Eye.” In essay after essay, he writes as a magus, a spiritual master or a shaman who has seen into the very heart of the universe and shares his healing vision with those who live in a world of feeble sight. We must learn to see again, he tells us; we must rediscover the true center of the self in the otherness of nature.

As the works of any naturalist might, Eiseley’s essays and poems deal with the flora and fauna of North America. They probe the concept of evolution, which consumed so much of his scholarly attention, examining the bones and shards, the arrowpoints and buried treasures. Every scientific observation leads to reflection. To observe flowers is to become aware of our relationship to them -- that all of life from the beginning has depended on their existence.

While discussing a peculiar species of giant wasp, he tells us that in the world there is nothing below a certain depth that can truly be explained. “Nothing to explain the necessity of life, nothing to explain the hunger of the elements to become life . . . .” And as an evolutionist he tells us that “the human version of evolutionary events [is] perhaps too simplistic for belief.”

The speculation today is that an evolutionary plateau may have been reached, on which humanity must either associate itself intimately with machines or give way to “exosomatic evolution” -- transferring self and personality to machines. To this Eiseley replies: ‘‘Cyborgs and exosomatic evolution, however far they are carried, partake of the planet virus. They will never bring peace to man, but they will harry him onward through the circle of the worlds.’’ It would be well, he tells us, to heed the message of the Buddha, who knew that “one cannot proceed upon the path of human transcendence until one has made interiorly in one’s soul a road into the future.” Spaces within stretch as far as those without.

Using narrative, parable and exposition, Eiseley has the uncanny ability to make us feel that we are accompanying him on a journey into the very heart of the universe. Whether he is explicating history or commenting on the ideas of a philosopher, a scientist or a theologian, he takes us with him on a personal visit. In The Invisible Pyramid (Scribner’s 1972) his analysis of the differences in evolutionary development on continents like Australia, South America and Africa leads to speculation about races of human beings on other planets. Without jargon or the pretense of system, he leads readers through a course of thought wherein conclusions reach them at a level of knowing not unlike that attained after meditation on a koan. “There is no trend demanding mans constant reappearance, either on the separate ‘worlds’ of this earth or elsewhere. . . . Nature gambles but she gambles with constantly new and altering dice.” Suddenly we find the rationality of our ordinary understanding of evolution shattered.

There is a melancholy climate to much of Eiseley’s meditation. When he confronts the end of humanity in its beginnings, there is a deathliness in his images. But it is not a death that is unaware of resurrection. He knows that something new is born of every ending. While telling of the giant wasps which fill him with wonderment, he writes:

Beneath the midsummer sunlight of another year a molecular alarm will sound in the coffin at rest in that silent chamber; the sarcophagus will split. In the depth of the tomb a great yellow and black Sphex will appear. The clock in its body will tell it to hasten up the passage to the surface.

On that brief journey the wasp may well trip over the body of its own mother -- if this was her last burrow -- a tomb for life and a tomb for death. Here the generations do not recognize each other; it remains only to tear open the doorway and rush upward into the sun. The dead past, its husks. its withered wings are cast aside, scrambled over, in the frantic moment of resurrection [All the Strange Hours (Scribners, 1975), p. 243].

Eiseley is at his best when he narrates an event or describes a poignant revelatory moment. In an early essay, ‘The Judgment of the Birds,” he tells of awakening at night in a room on the 20th floor of a hotel in midtown Manhattan. As he gazes at the cupolas and lofts outlined in the darkness below, he makes out he silent wings of pigeons, floating outward through the city. He is overcome by a sense of the world’s transformation that bids him launch out across the windowsill and join the birds who know that humanity is asleep and that the barely perceptible light is theirs alone. Only a little courage is necessary, “a little shove from the window ledge to enter that city of light.” Then, carefully, he brings us back into the room where we re-enter the human city. The account is a record of revelation: ‘‘I had seen, just once, man’s greatest creation from a strange inverted angle, and it was not really his at all. I will never forget how those wings went round and round, and how, by the merest pressure of the fingers and a feeling for air, one might go away over the roofs. It is a knowledge: however, that is better kept to oneself.”

For Loren Eiseley, writing itself becomes a form of contemplation. Contemplation is a kind of human activity in which the mind, spirit and body are directed in solitude toward some other. Scholars and critics have not yet taken the full measure of contemplation as an art that is related to the purpose of all scholarly activity -- to see things as they really are. Therefore, most scholarship is a carefully crafted veneer of rationalistic activity, helpful perhaps on its own level, but not usually leading to genuine insight. Scholars like Loren Eiseley confront us with the impoverishment of our understanding. “You,” a friend told him, “are a freak. you know. A God-damned freak, and life is never going to be easy for you. You like scholarship, but the scholars, some of them, anyhow, are not going to like you because you don’t stay in the hole where God supposedly put you. You keep sticking your head out and looking around. In a university that’s inadvisable.” Eiseley was a contemplative who gazed into and through the otherness of reality. One discovers through contemplation that reality consists of various encounters with an other without which we ourselves are incomplete. Finding that otherness is almost always a matter of vision, a way of knowing that we have forgotten.

Eiseley is more than a recording scholar. The latter reports on what he or she has discovered, sharing the observations made and the conclusions reached in the course of discovery. His or her ideas are clearly developed in advance; the writing is a matter of giving record. For the writer, on the other hand, the process is itself part of the result. Writers do not completely see and understand until they are engaged in writing. Images and metaphors are fundamental to the process of observation and understanding that writing makes possible. For thinkers like Eiseley, there is a kind of metaphorical imperative at work.

“Primitives of our own species, even today,” he writes, “are historically shallow in their knowledge of the past. Only the poet who writes speaks his message across the millennia to other hearts. Only in writing can the cry from the great cross on Golgotha still be heard in the minds of men.” Written words unlock the private brain and link it with generations of humanity. Words have a way of bringing into consciousness the beginnings and the endings of being itself. Scrivening makes that consciousness impressionable and communicable. The poet, the literary stylist, is intensely aware of the significance of his or her creative actions. Such a person knows that the form, the images and the metaphors that emerge from the marriage of mind and pen are impressions that no other human activity can duplicate. When we read Eiseley’s essays and poems we realize that this scientist knows something of the order and meaning of being that the recording scholar gives little evidence of knowing. Images and metaphors are indispensable to the contemplation in which the latter is engaged. The result is a form of religious thought that is in itself a means of contemplation.

Although Eiseley may not have considered his writing as an expression of American spiritually, one feels that he was quite mindful of its religious character. As an heir of Emerson and Thoreau, he is at home among the poets and philosophers and among those scientists whose observations also were a form of contemplation of the universe.

Loren Eiseley had been a drifter in his youth. From the plains of Nebraska he had wandered across the American West. Sometimes sickly, at other times testing his strength with that curious band of roving exiles who searched the land above the rippling railroad ties, he explored his soul as he sought to touch the distant past. He became a naturalist and a bone hunter because something about the landscape had linked his mind to the birth and death of life itself. As he delivered a lecture in Texas late in his career, he pondered the coming of European settlers to America:

We had starved helplessly in our first winters; Indians had fed us. Generation by generation we had had to relearn the arts of a vanished era. In order to survive we had had to master what our paleolithic forebears had taken for granted. The farther we pressed into the forest the more rank, prestige, and fine garments would dissolve into rags and buckskin. We would be reduced to elemental man [All the Strange Hours (Scribner’s. 1975), p. 5].

It was in that same America that humanity had refused to remain elemental. It had purged itself more and more of the green plants and the waters that washed in its blood. It had sought to take itself out of nature and to envelop itself in a sheath of its own technical fashioning. It is perhaps in America that we most misjudge the evolutionary journey. We insist on progress and impose it upon reluctant evidence. “The creation falls and falls again. In mortal time . . . it must ever fall. Yet the falling brings not only strange, dark and unexpected ends to innocent creatures but also death to tyrannous monsters (Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X [Dutton, 1979], p. 228). Eiseley’s writings hold no great optimism for humanity’s time on earth: that time is running short and its end is inevitable.

Yet the man who dug for bones in the Badlands and lowered himself into caves and crevices to find the evidences of changing life was an American. Like the Emerson he admired, he perceived the “weary slipping, the sensed entrophy, the ebbing away of the human spirit into fox and weasel as it struggled upward while all its past tugged upon it from below.” But he was also, as Whitman said of Emerson, “transcendental of limits. a pure American for daring.” And in this American daring, there is the hope that we can learn to contemplate, rather than to subdue, the nature from which we can never separate ourselves absolutely, try as we may. Nature is the otherness which we observe as distinct, but which we must rediscover as part of ourselves.

Long ago, says Eiseley, people learned to contemplate and we have not improved upon that contemplation, though we have tried to relegate it to the refuse heap of lesser attributes of reason. Long ago our ancestors painted on the walls of caverns and buried the revered dead because they sensed a discrepancy in existence. Then, as Americans, we somehow knew we were more than we understood ourselves to be. There was in us the “strong optimism of the Early Republic.” Our untouched forests confronted us with a silence that penetrated the soul with mysterium tremendum. It has been unfortunate that we have thrust aside this religious terror, refusing to contemplate it. For it is contemplation that teaches us that we, and, indeed, all of nature, are more than we observe. In that contemplation is our hope:

Great minds have always seen it. That is why man has survived his journey this long. When we fail to wish any longer to be otherwise than what we are, we will have ceased to evolve. Evolution has to be lived forward. 1 say this as one who has stood above the bones of much that has vanished, and at midnight has examined his own face. [Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X (Dutton, 1979), pp. 233-34].


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